The virgin production from LCT3, Lincoln Center’s ambitious attempt to disconnect the kids from their electronic lifelines and get them into a legit theater, is a hip-hop musical, “Clay,” written and scored by its solo performer, Matt Sax. Show has been pummeled into professional shape by helmer Eric Rosen and shrewdly pitched to its target audience. It’s well located (on alluring 42nd St.), priced to sell ($20), and enhanced by first-rate light-and-sound technology. The theater has built a better mousetrap. Let’s see if it works.
Opening material is about as lame as it gets as Sax recounts how a sad little boy from Westchester suffers through his parents’ ugly divorce and mopes his way from childhood to adolescence. But once the 16-year-old Clifford stumbles into the hip-hop performance of a Brooklyn bookstore owner named Sir John, character and show step into the light.
“You want to learn how to rap?” the incredulous black rapper demands of the trembling white boy who has worked up the courage to ask for formal instruction. “You for real?”
At $50 a pop, the weekly lessons are a bargain because they give the show a true dynamic, setting up opportunities for conflict and growth while allowing Clifford to interact with a character of individualistic style and substance. From the moment Sir John gives Cliff his first lesson — with a rap inspired by Shakespeare (“Speak the speech I pray you”) — “Clay” begins to show some originality.
Cliff isn’t the only one to benefit from Sir John’s lessons. Innocents and elders alike might be surprised to learn some basic rules of hip-hop: “It only comes out truthful if it comes from a truthful place… We define our experience through our rhymes… Don’t try and pretend to be something you’re not.” According to this rap master, it isn’t all gangstas and ho’s.
Going beyond the bare philosophy, Sir John teaches Clifford the fine art of beat-boxing, at which Sax is phenomenally accomplished. Even his most inane lyrics (“What to say and do/To a father mad at you/When he doesn’t have a clue”) sound weighty when breathed into a hand mike, ricocheted through a decibel-gorged sound system, and illuminated by phalanxes of intelligent lights strafing the stage.
Sax plays some half-dozen other characters in Clifford’s life-drama. But these are broad caricatures, propped up with some distinctive body position and a few habitual mannerisms that transfer to the repetitive hand gestures of their rap songs. The grotesque facial grimaces of Clifford’s father make his character the least watchable, while the women fall back on hair-twirling.
Sir John, by way of contrast, is a full-bodied body — a genuine alter ego for Cliff. With his scarred face obscured under a black hoodie, he looks like a cross between Darth Vader and the saintly abbot of a monastic teaching order. Even their rapping styles are a dramatic study in contrasts, with Sir John’s manic leaps and bounds a fair counterpoint to Clifford’s youthful, often blundering bluntness.
“Clay” turns out to be a real piece of theater in one more important respect. Applying his mimetic skills to his musical instrument, Sax uses his hand-mike as an extension of himself. In one scene, it becomes a razor; in another, a lover’s mouth; and in one terrible moment, it becomes a gun. At such moments, this rapper is making drama, as well as music.